Ala. native, LSU basketball star Willie Sims mourned in Israel

Photo by Orrling/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Willie Sims, a “beloved” Israeli basketball star who was born in Alabama and was a key member of Louisiana State University’s basketball team 40 years ago, died on Dec. 23 in Israel. He was 64, and had been hospitalized since August, when he suffered a heart attack.

Sims was born in Lanett, east of Auburn by the Georgia line. He was predominantly raised in New York City by his grandmother, who had converted to Judaism when she married Sims’ grandfather.

According to an interview in the book “Alley Oop to Aliyah,” he wore dreadlocks and a kippah, getting in frequent fights as a child. His family kept Jewish practices but identified as Hebrews, until his high school coach, who was Jewish, explained that the terms were basically the same thing. He then identified as Jewish.

The summer before college, he was on the U.S. basketball team at the World Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1977. He scored the game-winning free throws against Israel in the finals and helped the United States to the title, 92-91.

He attended LSU and was a member of the 1981 NCAA Final Four team. He generally came off the bench and was known as “Super Sub” by fans, and during the 1981 season, PA announcer Sid Crocker would introduce him with the starters as “the best sixth man in college basketball.”

Sims played in 120 games with a career scoring average of 7.6 points per game. He averaged 9.2 points in 1980 and 8.5 points in the 1981 NCAA Final Four season. Sims shot over 50 percent from the field in both the 1980 and 1981 seasons.

In addition to the Final Four in 1981, LSU won the regular season conference championship in 1979 and 1981, and the conference tournament in 1980.

Still, he did encounter some pushback. Someone wrote on his door, “Black and Jewish, why are you in Louisiana?”

After his senior season in 1981, he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in the fifth round. But that summer, he returned to Israel for the Maccabiah, as the U.S. team defended its gold medal. Recruited by Israeli teams during his Maccabiah appearances, he decided to turn down life in the NBA and joined Maccabi Haifa, along with U.S. Maccabiah teammate David Blatt, who would go on to be a highly successful coach at Maccabi Tel Aviv, along with a stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Because he was Jewish, he qualified immediately for Israeli citizenship, meaning he would not count against the maximum number of foreign players allowed to be on Israel league teams.

His citizenship was far easier than his wedding, though, as the rabbinate demanded all manner of family documentation. Like many Israelis, he and his bride, Ariela, decided to skip the bureaucracy and go to Cyprus for a civil ceremony.

Sims played for Maccabi Haifa B.C. from 1981 to 1983, averaging 21.2 points per game. From 1983 to 1985 he played for Hapoel Tel Aviv B.C., where he won the Israeli Basketball State Cup.

From 1985 until 1987 he played for Elitzur Netanya, where he was the leading scorer in the 1985-86 season, on a team that surprised everyone by making the finals. From 1987 to 1992 he played for Maccabi Tel Aviv B.C., where he won the Israeli Basketball Super League five times and won three Israeli State Cups.

He then played for the Hapoel Eilat basketball club from 1992 to 1996, then retired to go into coaching. He was assistant coach for Maccabi Hadera, where he returned to the court in 1998-99 because of a player shortage.

He is ranked in the top 50 greatest players of all time in Israel. He also appeared in 76 playoff games in Israel, in which he scored 842 points, ranking 14th on the list of all-time best players in the playoffs in Israel.

After retiring, he started a fitness studio for children, just north of Tel Aviv. He also continued as an assistance coach for Elitzur Netanya.

Sims had two sons and a daughter. He became more secular as the years went by in Israel, and described his childrens’ bar and bat mitzvahs in Israeli terms, that they were becoming adults and soon would be off to defend their country.

His daughter, Danyelle, is a model who married Gal Mekel. A Ramat HaSharon native, Mekel played at Wichita State before signing with Israeli teams. He played for the Dallas Mavericks, becoming the second Israeli in the NBA, appearing in 31 games in the 2013-14 season before injuring his knee. He was waived in October 2014, then signed with the New Orleans Pelicans a month later. He appeared in four games before he was waived. He currently plays for MoraBanc Andorra.

Blatt said “We came to Maccabiah together after a training camp in New York, and from the first day I saw how special he was… He had the ability to gather people around him and make them his friends.”

Blatt added, “He was much more than a basketball player and made everyone around him feel special, all with humility and giving. He was a true newcomer who fell in love with the country, and she fell in love with him back.”

Legendary player Tal Brody, who is credited with putting Israel basketball “on the map” of the world, said Sims’ death “was felt all over Israel as Willie was loved by all.”

Shimon Mizrahi, chairman of Maccabi Tel Aviv, said “The spirit he knew how to instill around him, that was his greatness… he knew how to manage the game and make the team as unique as it is.”

Maccabi Tel Aviv teammate Doron Gemchi said “when you play in a team, it’s fun to have such a character with you, who combines mental toughness and, on the other hand, gentleness.”

In a statement, Maccabi Tel Aviv said “Willie was always a fighter and an athlete with a wonderful smile, who won five championships in five seasons with the Yellows, three Israeli State Cups, and participated in the European Final Four three times.”

Shmuel Frenkel, co-chair of Israel’s Super League, remembers Sims “as a great defensive player… without an ego and with a rare fighting spirit and a radiant personality.”